Princeton honors outstanding secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2005 Commencement on Tuesday, May 31.

This year's honorees are: Shirley Allen of Charles W. Lewis Middle School, Blackwood; Mark Gutkowski of Morristown High School, Morristown; Mary Hassenplug of High Point Regional High School, Sussex; and Mary Trotta of Woodbury Junior-Senior High School, Woodbury.

"The four teachers selected for this year's award -- from among 82 nominations from public and private schools across New Jersey -- are exceptional," said John Webb, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the awards.   "They represent the very best that the profession has to offer. When we review the dossiers of all the nominees, we are reminded that there are many truly dedicated, hard-working and high-quality teachers in New Jersey's schools."

Each teacher will receive $5,000 as well as $3,000 for his or her school library.

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 10 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and including Webb, two Princeton professors and two external education professionals.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959. The University received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Following is information about the honorees:

Shirley Allen

With a 30-year career at Charles W. Lewis Middle School in Blackwood, Shirley Allen has helped countless students develop their reading and writing skills and has served as a mentor to many teachers.

The department head for language arts literacy at the school, Allen uses innovative methods to help both remedial and accelerated readers achieve. Currently teaching eighth-graders, she coaches them to write essays for a local newspaper in its "Student Voices" competition, in which her students routinely perform well.

According to Takisha Ford, whom Allen mentored and with whom she co-teaches, Allen encourages students to reinforce reading through peer-learning experiences. For example, she founded a weekly book club with another reading specialist for students in grades six through eight. Recently, she organized a tutorial program for middle school students to read to elementary school students.  

Allen described a key part of her teaching philosophy as connecting reading to real-life experiences. "Each summer I ponder what is going on in the world, what would heighten the interests of my eighth-graders, and what will take them to a higher level of critical thinking," she said.

"Mrs. Allen opened up our minds to think about the world around us," said student Thomas McNutt. "She educated her students so that we could think for ourselves and then put those thoughts into words."

Allen also is valued as a mentor to other teachers through one-on-one training and by conducting workshops and sharing research relevant to educators. "At the local level, she continually mentors new teachers, student teachers and practicum teachers, sharing a wealth of knowledge ... to benefit other schools, districts, communities and children," said Constance Bauer, principal of the school.

In 2004, Allen reached a major milestone in her career when she received National Board Certification. Describing the achievement as "one of the most significant experiences in her educational career," Allen said the assessment process "taught her to delve even further into each student's learning styles, interests, skills and social circumstances."

Allen earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark Gutkowski

Revitalizing the Latin program at Morristown High School, Mark Gutkowski has pioneered lessons that include role-playing, songs, an annual chariot race and even a simulation of the school building as a Roman bathhouse.

Since Gutkowski joined the school's faculty in 1997, enrollment in Latin has surged from 16 to 150 students in 2004-05. He has re-envisioned the curriculum for 10 Latin classes, ranging from introductory Latin to AP Latin literature. He also founded the school's Latin Club.

Gutowski's innovative teaching style has made him a highly sought-after teacher. "I am a senior in AP Latin now, and I have had the pleasure of being taught by Mr. Gutkowski for almost four years," said student Rebecca DiBrienza. "Most students continue on to a higher level of Latin, solely because of Mr. Gutkowski. Do not tell an MHS student that Latin is a dead language. To us, it is as full of life as our dynamic, skilled and all-around incredible teacher."

Inspired by Gutkowski, student Samantha Tomblin plans on studying Latin in college, on the way to becoming a teacher herself. "My goal is to someday teach one student what I have learned from Mr. Gutkowski and, if I am lucky, to be a fraction of the teacher he is today."

"It is obvious that Mark's love for Latin prose and poetry, the language and the culture has engaged his students in their own learning," said Jan Kaiser, coordinator of the school's world language department. Lauding Gutkowski's "talent for drawing students in to the classics," she said his excitement for the Latin program is "contagious."

Gutkowski said that he enters his classroom with the goal "to engage students through active learning with innovative and intellectually stimulating lessons in a caring and supportive classroom environment that respects and celebrates each student's individuality." In his teaching, he constantly draws from the philosophy of Plato to help students realize the best in themselves.  

Currently, Gutkowski also is serving as a consultant to help establish a new Latin program at the Bronx School of Law and Finance, a learning process that he said gave him the perspective he needed to "take the next step forward as an educator."

Gutkowski received a bachelor's degree in English -- completing a second major in Latin one year after graduating -- and a master's degree in foreign language education, both from Rutgers University.

Mary Hassenplug

Independent thinking is a value that English teacher Mary Hassenplug encourages in her students as well as her fellow educators at High Point Regional High School in Sussex.

Interested in developing individuals who will lead rather than follow, Hassenplug said her hope is that students will view her classroom as a "place to create opinions, a haven for free thinking, a room of their own."

"The joy of seeing students discover their own answers, ones that belong solely to them, ones that they've fought and clawed for, is the ultimate reward," said Hassenplug, who has taught at High Point since 1984.

According to William Bauer, supervisor of language arts at High Point, Hassenplug uses multiple assessment tools to measure student progress. "Her thought and consideration to detail provide her students with a clear understanding of their responsibility toward all aspects of their educational experience," he said.

Students cited Hassenplug's devotion to increasing their confidence as key to helping them challenge themselves. "Ms. Hassenplug's classes are greatly discussion-driven, and she maintains the importance of voicing one's opinions and insights, regardless of how 'valid' they may or may not seem," said former student and aspiring teacher Caitrin Lawlor. "She knows how absolutely imperative it is that students be permitted to discover, not necessarily be told."

Acknowledging that it is essential to hold on to the "idealism of the wide-eyed rookie" she felt when she started teaching, Hassenplug serves as a mentor to many other new teachers. Fellow educator Noah Klimas said that her guidance was invaluable to him when he started teaching at High Point with just five months of experience as a substitute teacher. "Through Mary's guidance I feel as though I have made a great deal of progress as a teacher," he said. "I value her opinion, input and advice; and though she is not technically my mentor any more, I will always consider her as a mentor."

Hassenplug is committed to the process of discovery even in her own continuing development as a teacher. In 2004, she spent three weeks in Japan on a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholarship to learn about the educational system there. On her return to High Point, she immediately shared her experiences with her students and fellow teachers.  

Currently, Hassenplug is working to introduce a "cyber classroom" into the English curriculum at the school, which will allow students to create their own Web pages and publish their writing. Through this electronic tool, adult mentors would serve as readers and assessors of the students' work. Hassenplug hopes that this Web-based class could then be expanded to include other academic subjects.  

Hassenplug holds a bachelor's degree in education from Bloomsburg University and a master's degree in English from William Paterson University.

Mary Trotta

After 29 years as an English teacher at Woodbury Junior–Senior High School, Mary Trotta continues to find new ways to engage students and nurture in them a love of learning.

Trotta said that she quickly realized that English should not be taught using grammar books, but by giving students an opportunity to express themselves and collaborate with others. "I started to see my classroom as a 'safe haven' where insights and individual needs needed to be valued," she said. "I wanted to offer students opportunities to reflect and to share the process of learning as well as the traditional product such as an essay, a poem or a report."

A teacher of English for grades 7 through 12, Trotta earned certification as a reading specialist in order to help older students struggling with literacy. "Those students have learned that the world is cruel to those who cannot read and, not knowing how to address the problem, they go to great lengths to hide it," Trotta said.

According to Jane Plenge, supervisor of Woodbury's Office of Curriculum and Instruction, Trotta's dedication to meeting the wide-ranging needs of her students, many of whom come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, is evident in the programs and initiatives she leads.

The chair of the English department since 1990, Trotta also is coordinator of the Writing Center, and this year she launched the Read 180 program for struggling readers. "Students who previously read with great difficulty are now increasing in speed, comprehension and fluency," Plenge said.

Former student Kevin Lonabaugh, who had Trotta as a teacher in eighth and ninth grades, said, "She inspired in me a strong desire to read all that was at my fingertips and it was through her insights that I developed a love for all different types of books."

Trotta's leadership is greatly valued by her peers at Woodbury. Veteran teacher Katherine Pascale Santamore said that Trotta "has led individual and group efforts to modernize research, update our literature requirement to recognize and celebrate diversity, and include technology as an integral part of our instruction."  

Trotta readily shares what she has learned throughout her career with fellow teachers. She serves as an instructor with the University of Pennsylvania Penn Literacy Program, teaching graduate-level courses for her colleagues on methods to help students read, write and speak more effectively. She also created a writing guide and distributed it to all faculty members at Woodbury, suggesting writing topics and other pointers to help them bring out the best in their students.

Trotta earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from Wheaton College and a master's degree from Brown University, where she also received teaching certification.